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Saturday, April 9, 2011


( Pic by Andrew Buchanan: Mary mother of Christ (Patti Hunt), Christus (Brett Montanari) with Martha (Wendy Maharaj) and Magdalene (Chryselle Rathinam) in the background)

The passion and commitment of the cast and company is as evident as the subject matter itself. (Review by Caroline Smart)

The first Passion Play in Durban was performed in 1952 when the Mayor and community of Oberammergau in Bavaria granted special permission to the Durban Catholic Players Guild to stage an abridged version of their world famous production. What was first enacted in 1634 in Oberammergau was used in Durban as a means of celebrating the centenary of the arrival of the missionary Oblate priests of Mary Immaculate [OMI] who arrived in South Africa in 1852.

The first Durban production was enacted at Greyville Racecourse and was so successful that Fr Noel Coughlin travelled to Bavaria to gain permission for the Durban version to be staged every five years. The Oberammergau village fathers willingly obliged, seeing the play as a means of witnessing to the larger population of Southern Africa. Durban would become the “Oberammergau of Africa” and it has been staged in Durban every five years for 59 years.

The Durban Catholic Players Guild, in association with the Playhouse Company, presents the 13th Durban Passion Play in the beautiful Drama theatre and – under the all-embracing direction of Dawn Haynes - utilises to good effect the technical facilities of my favourite theatre venue.

The oldest member of the cast is Vi Allanson (91) in her eighth Passion Play who appears as part of the crowd, closely followed by Dick Pope (89) in the role of Simon of Bethany. The youngest performers are Diego Pretorius (just under a year) and delightful Catherine Stewart (just over a year), who tonight decided to wave at the audience and then proceeded to find the pile of palms and showed that she could “Hosannah” along with everyone else!

To create this production, which remains at a consistently high level, it takes a good seven months hard work from an extended company of 150 stalwarts which includes programme designers, seven seamstresses, make-up artists (no less than 16), a cobbler (Desmond Brock now 85) and a bread-maker, to name a few. Actual performers number 123 and many of them double successfully in different roles, despite the fact that they are not professional actors. The passion and commitment of the cast and company is as evident as the subject matter itself, and they receive no reimbursement for their efforts – just the pure joy of performing a story they believe in so strongly.

The production portrays Christ’s last days on earth, leading up to the Crucifixion and Ascension – both well-handled from a technical as well as dramatic viewpoint. This is very much an ensemble piece but I would like to acknowledge Brett Montanari (who alternates with Denzil Deane in the role of Christ) for his credible and very sincere performance. Also notable were Murray Leyden (impressively articulate as Pontius Pilate); Frans Vera (Peter), Anthony Dominic Sandiah (Judas) and Sean Achim as a mischievously manipulative Herod (alternating with David Spiteri).

Maurice Hettena’s original score is as evocative as ever, the lighting and sound effects were powerful and Rod Smith’s revolving set design still impresses, as did the luxuriance of fabric – not to mention the belly dancers - in Herod’s scene.

The Durban Passion Play 2011 is produced by Clifton Brock and runs in the Playhouse Drama until April 24. There is a signed performance for the hearing impaired on April 16 at 14h00. Ticket prices range from R30 to R60 booked through Computicket. The programme specifically requests that there is no applause during the performances. It needs to be seen as a spiritual journey. – Caroline Smart

Take time to visit the Denis Hurley Centre stand in the foyer which offers a good selection of beadwork rosaries and jewellery as well as information on this valued centre.